No discussion of this notorious Italian movie can begin without a warning: The subject matter of Salò is so disturbing, and the onscreen content so gruesome, that merely hearing descriptions of the film is enough to turn some people’s stomachs. So, if you get squeamish when the subjects of child abuse and sexual deviance are raised, please read no further. Make no mistake, Salò is a movie that one doesn’t watch so much as endure. Yet while some pictures exploring the outer boundaries of what can be captured on film are plainly exploitative, Salò is far more complicated. This is an artful meditation on anarchism, depravity, fascism, nihilism, and other unnerving tendencies of the human animal.
In fact, Pier Paolo Pasolini’s movie is such a serious-minded endeavor that it’s almost impossible to say when and where he crosses the line between clinically observing abuse and salaciously relishing abuse—yet since Pasolini could have expressed his provocative thematic ideas without including some of the ghastly images that fill Salò, it’s inarguable the filmmaker got lost in the ugly maze he created.
Based on an unfinished novel by the Marquis de Sade written circa 1785, Pasolini’s storyline takes place in 1944 Italy. Four wealthy fascists establish a secret fortress in the Republic of Salò, a short-lived nation established by Nazi Germany within Italy during the height of World War II. The fascists kidnap 18 teenaged boys and girls for use as sexual playthings during a 120-day festival of inhumane debauchery.
Aided by a support staff of willing adults, the fascists stage a bizarre daily ritual. While congregating in a large room to listen to filthy anecdotes that are told by middle-aged prostitutes, the fascists indulge their perverse whims on the teenagers. These whims include beatings and rape in endless variations, and at one point the youths are put on leashes and forced to walk on all fours up and down stone staircases. Another favorite pastime is feeding the children human excrement. The fascists grow more depraved with each passing day, gaining arousal from the despair of their victims and competing with each other to see who can travel further down the abyss of amorality.
Viewed from the most forgiving perspective, Salò is a merciless commentary on the subjugation of citizenry by any group with absolute power, and many intelligent critics consider Salò an important achievement in 20th-century cinema because of its boldness and political insights. Viewed more harshly, the movie seems sensationalistic.
For instance, Pasolini’s clinical visual style evokes a Kubrickian coldness even though Pasolini lacks Kubrick’s photographic sophistication. At times, this approach renders stomach-churning results, as in the finale—once sex games give way to bloodsport, Pasolini observes various torture scenes through the remove of long lenses tricked up to resemble the view through binoculars, putting the audience in the position of the fascists who watch the torture with voyeuristic fervor. At other times, however, Pasolini’s unflinching eye creates a sense of unseemly luridness, as when the filmmaker lingers needlessly on close-ups of genitals.
Furthermore, the film’s over-the-top dialogue exists on a plane far beyond realism; the fascists speak with academic formality, saying things like, “In all the world no voluptuousness flatters the senses more than social privilege.” It’s tempting to call this aspect of the movie pretentious, but it’s just as likely Pasolini considered his characters metaphors, thereby aesthetically justifying their unwieldy speech patterns. In any event, Salò is unique—virtually no other movie contains this many repulsive images. Salò offers no escape or salvation, instead immersing viewers in a cinematic dungeon of psychological punishment and sexual savagery.
Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom: FREAKY